Sword of Bone, by Anthony Rhodes

Oliver Webb-Carter

Part of the IWM Wartime Classics, this novel is a masterpiece of satire and pathos.
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The Imperial War Museum (IWM) has been publishing their Wartime Classics, novels written by veterans of the Second World War and based on their experiences. The writers very much represent the citizen army, including the actor, Anthony Quayle, and Kathleen Hewitt, the author and playwright (you can read more about the series here). Sword of Bone is one such title, and the author, Anthony Rhodes, was later an academic, writer and historian.

The novel begins just after war is declared, and the central character is sent to France as an advance party in order to find billets for his comrades following later. It is in idyllic Normandy that he arrives and soon makes friends with a most agreeable companion, Georges, a French officer whose job it is to assist in the identification of suitable accommodation. This task seems to be achieved quickly wherever they travel, which then leaves the two men the far more important job of finding the best restaurants in the area as they move closer to Paris. Georges, a stockbroker before the war, has refined tastes and the both of them subsist on a seemingly endless diet of lobster and oysters washed down with champagne, making Rhodes’ Phoney War seem a high class version of a lads holiday. Georges’ wife is even summoned to join in the party as they travel through the French autumnal countryside.

There are many moments which made me laugh out loud, from the snobbery between the Cavalry and Tank Corps, the scorn heaped on the Civil Service by the press (plus ça change), to a court martial in which the protagonist attempts the insanity defence, but is refused by his commanding officer with, “We shall never hear the end of it, if it is known that we have a madman in the regiment.”

They move on to the Maginot Line, and it is here one enters the state of mind of the average soldier during those early days of the war, and the certainty that the Line seemed to give. There is an assumption that nothing much will happen because of the impregnable fortifications, with their huge guns, ranged along German frontier.

Guderian rudely shatters this illusion, and our hero is soon in Belgium, being given the runaround by the Wehrmacht. It is here, and the subsequent retreat to Dunkirk that the holiday is over. The description of the evacuation is vivid and compelling. I once spoke with a veteran and asked him what it was like. “Bloody awful,” came the reply, and Rhodes has captured exactly how I had imagined it to be.

The pathos that Rhodes conveys in the closing pages takes Sword of Bone to a  level rarely reached. A masterpiece of writing, this book should be read widely. Rhodes’ novel rests comfortably alongside Catch 22 and Sword of Honour, and the IWM has made an inspired decision in re-publishing these titles.